JAZZ: Gary Giddins, W.W. Norton & Company
"Giddins on jazz"


In the work of Thelonius Monk and Charles Mingus there's a tension between composition and improvisation. What led these jazz composers to notate their compositions with greater precision even as the music grew in complexity?

Well, jazz has always been a combination of composition and improvisation. I'm going back to Jelly Roll Morton. And the jazz composers want to have a certain amount of control but they also want to leave space for the improvisers. When you listen to a Duke Ellington classic like "In a Mellow Tone" you have two great solos, by Johnny Hodges on saxophone and Cootie Williams on trumpet. And yet, while they're playing the band is playing these incredibly complex riffs and arabesques behind them. And it sounds almost as though the solos were as written as that because the interaction is perfect. And yet it's not, it's something that they learn to do. They are - they know what the orchestra's going to play so that they can keep that in mind. The orchestra doesn't know what the improvisers are going to play, but when it really happens magically it comes together and it feels like a completely satisfying piece. It has the spontaneity of improvisation and the discipline of composition.

Ellington is, you know, the ultimate master. Guys like Mingus in the 1950s or George Russell - even more ambitious composers, writing longer works, more complicated works - had to have a certain amount of control. They had to notate every piece to know that the orchestra's going to deliver the enveloping material that would set off the improvisations. But then when they leave a place the improviser has to rise to the level of that composition. Now, Gil Evans - one of the great composers we talk a lot about in the book - made a record, a number of records where he basically taught the whole orchestra how to improvise a piece. He would write maybe eight bars of music and the rest of it he would develop by, you know, hand signals and pointing. Not to soloists, but to whole sections of the orchestra.

There's a famous moment in a record he made called La Nevada where the - it's a great record - but while they're recording the tune, the very tune that we have on the record, he gets an idea and he takes a matchbook and he writes four bars and he hands it to the guy in the [horn] section. And they're all leaning over and they start playing this riff on the matchbox, uh, the matchbook. You know, that's the beauty of jazz is it's written when it needs to be written. It's spontaneous, it's - you can't pin it down. It's like Jello. It goes where it's going to go.